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4 Things You Should Know About The Statute Of Limitations

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In a Nutshell

This article will explain four things that you should know about the statute of limitations, a state law that limits the time a debt collector has to bring a lawsuit. Once the time limit has passed, you'll be able to defeat a debt collection lawsuit and avoid a judgment.

Written by the Upsolve TeamLegally reviewed by Attorney Andrea Wimmer
Updated July 20, 2021

This article will explain four things that you should know about the statute of limitations. This state law limits the time that a debt collector has to bring a lawsuit. One practical effect of this law is that anyone who is extended credit must follow their debts as they age. The older a debt gets, the sooner the statute of limitations will apply. 

Statutes of limitations differ by state. They often differ by type of claim or area of law and may also vary by type of contract. For example, the statutes of limitations for breach of contract claims differ from the statutes of limitation for personal injury claims. Similarly, the statute for written contracts often differs from the statute for oral contracts.

The Statute Of Limitations Only Limits How Long A Creditor Can Bring A Lawsuit

The first thing to know is that statutes of limitations set a specific timeframe for plaintiffs to bring a lawsuit in court. If a party doesn’t file a lawsuit within the required amount of time, it loses the right to use the legal system. This means it cannot use the courts to make you pay a past debt, for example. The statute of limitations is simply a time limit or deadline for filing civil lawsuits.

These statutes are part of state law. This means that the time limits to bring a claim are different in each state. For example, in Georgia, a breach of a written contract (including nonpayment of debt) has a six-year time limit. Breach of an oral contract has a 4-year limit.

In California, breach of a written contract has a 4-year time limit. Breach of an oral contract has a 2-year limit. Any collection of a debt on an open or stated account has a 4-year limit. If you have a credit card, the statute of limitations for an open or stated account will likely apply to this debt.

The intent behind this statute is to encourage plaintiffs to bring lawsuits in a timely fashion. This prevents potential defendants from feeling uncertain about past events that may have exposed them to being sued. People should have peace of mind that they won’t get surprised with a lawsuit many years in the future.

The statute of limitations can provide a valid defense for individuals with debt that debt collectors are attempting to recover. A debt collector can’t compel you to pay debt by filing a lawsuit if they are past the statute of limitations. This is one of several defenses you could assert when answering a complaint against you that could cause the judge to dismiss the case. One of these defenses is the time expiring for bringing the claim under the applicable statute of limitations.

Though you may not be able to be sued in court, once the statute of limitations expires, the affected debt doesn’t completely disappear from your life. It will still be reported to the credit bureaus and appear on your credit report and credit history as a debt with an unpaid balance. This means it can affect your credit score. But older debt doesn’t have as much weight as your recent credit history. Still, you must pay close attention to your credit history as it evolves. Under federal law, each credit bureau must give you a free credit report every 12 months. 

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) gives you certain rights concerning your credit report, including the following: 

  • The right to know what your file contains

  • The right to ask for a credit report

  • The right to dispute information in your credit report

  • The right to have inaccurate information corrected or removed

  • The right to have older, negative information excluded from your credit report

  • The right to have access to your credit report limited

  • The right to have your credit report given to your employer (only with your consent)

Sadly it’s not uncommon for collection agencies to still contact you to collect an old debt. They might still contact you long after the statute of limitations has expired and the debt has been deleted from your credit report. The more credit cards you’ve had in your history as a consumer, the more likely this will occur at some point.

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Understand Your Rights And Responsibilities With Old Debts

Because the statute of limitations is time-based, you must pay close attention to your credit report and follow your debts as they age. You should know when each of your debts will be time-barred by the statute of limitations. Debts that are the same type (such as credit cards) will have the same statute of limitations. 

Debt collectors are the main reason you have to follow your debts as they age. This is because debt collectors will still try to contact you about old debts—especially credit card debts—that are time-barred by the statute of limitations. 

But there’s good news. The Federal Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), requires that debt collectors reply truthfully if you ask them if the statute of limitations has expired. The Federal Trade Commission enforces the FDCPA, which also prohibits debt collectors from threatening to sue you for time-barred debts.

If you promise to pay an old, time-barred debt or make some partial payment, you may revive or restart the statute of limitations period for collecting the debt. A limitations period may be based on the date of your last payment. This means that the period begins or restarts on the date of the last payment. In this case, the collector could continue to pursue you for the entire debt, along with interest and late fees. You would lose the right to use the statute as a legal defense if sued. If you find yourself in this situation, seek legal advice.

The Statute Of Limitations Varies By State And By Type Of Contract

The third thing to know about statutes of limitations is that they differ by state. It’s common to wonder how long a debt collector has to collect your unpaid debt. You may worry about it appearing on your credit report and harming your credit score. Since the statute of limitations differs by state, trying to determine which statute of limitations applies to your unpaid debt can be complicated.

Some states allow extensive periods for debt collectors to sue for unpaid promissory notes. Ohio and Kentucky give debt collectors 15 years to sue for unpaid promissory notes. If you sign a promissory note in 2021 in either of these states and fail to pay it, you may be sued until  2036. If you are unsure about whether any of your debts will soon be subject to the statute of limitations, contact a local attorney. If you are considering bankruptcy as a potential solution, most bankruptcy attorneys offer free consultations. You can also contact the legal aid office in your area for help identifying your options.

Finally, the statute of limitations depends on the type of claim you’re bringing to court. The statute for contract claims differs from those for personal injury claims. The statute of limitations may even vary within the same area of law. It may vary within the type of debt. For example, in most states, the statute for written contracts differs from the statute of limitation for oral contracts. 

Some examples of state statutes of limitations related to debts include the following:

Ohio: time limits for initiating civil cases include eight years to sue on written contracts and six years to sue on oral contracts and open-ended accounts.

Michigan: Time limits for initiating civil cases include six years to sue on written contracts, oral contracts, and open-ended accounts.

Delaware: Time limits for initiating civil cases include three years to sue on both written contracts and oral contracts, and four years on open-ended accounts.

Not all debts are subject to statutes of limitations. Debts that don’t have a statute of limitations include federal and some private student loans, income taxes, and child support payments. If you fail to make payments on these debts, creditors and collectors can take legal action and sue you in court.

Let’s Summarize...

It’s important to consider the statute of limitations when you have an old debt, especially a debt whose time to collect has expired under the statute of limitations.  

There are four things to know about the statute of limitations.

  1. It determines how long you have to file a lawsuit in court.

  2. It makes it necessary to follow your debts as they age.

  3. It differs by state.

  4. It depends on the type of claim you’re asserting in your lawsuit.

What can you do if you’re being contacted about old debts? Research federal and state debt collection laws and your debt history to figure out what you need to do to resolve these matters. Help is readily available.

Written By:

The Upsolve Team

Upsolve is fortunate to have a remarkable team of bankruptcy attorneys, as well as finance and consumer rights professionals, as contributing writers to help us keep our content up to date, informative, and helpful to everyone.

Attorney Andrea Wimmer


Andrea practiced exclusively as a bankruptcy attorney in consumer Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases for more than 10 years before joining Upsolve, first as a contributing writer and editor and ultimately joining the team as Managing Editor. While in private practice, Andrea handled... read more about Attorney Andrea Wimmer

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